"The Switchman" opens at a deserted train station in an unnamed country. The stranger arrives, sweaty and out of breath from the effort of carrying his heavy suitcase, and mops his face with his handkerchief. His watch reads the exact time his train is scheduled to depart, but there is no sign of it; he worries that he has missed the train.
Out of nowhere appears an old man who taps him on the shoulder. The man is dressed like a railroader and carries a red lantern that is so small it looks like a toy. The stranger assumes he is affiliated with the railroad, and the implication is that he is the switchman for whom the story is named. The stranger asks the old man if the train has left, and in response the old man asks him if he has not been in the country long, indicating that the question is ridiculous and that the stranger is clearly not familiar with the system. The stranger insists that he must be in T__ by the following day at the latest, and the switchman responds that the stranger obviously doesn't understand the situation. He advises him to procure a room at the inn, ideally by the month. The stranger argues that he doesn't want to stay, and in response the switchman says he should let him work out his problem himself, but instead he will inform him of the situation. Thus begins their dialogue comprised almost solely of the stranger's questions and the switchman's answers.
According to the switchman, "This country is famous for its railroads." Apparently this fame is due to the poor reputation of the railroads, but the switchman insists that the timetables and ticket sales have been greatly improved. In effect, he reports, it has been improved such that by all appearances there is a working rail system linking every town in the country, but in fact the trains do not adhere to the schedules. In the meantime, he insists, everyone is patient with the system out of patriotism. The stranger learns that although rails do pass through the town, the train doesn't necessarily come through it, although a few have been known to do so, and perhaps he might be lucky enough to get one. The stranger asks if the theoretical train will go to his destination, and the switchman treats the question as if he is asking more than is reasonable. The stranger argues that his ticket is for his destination, and the switchman concedes that although most people would agree with his logic, locals cope with the circumstances by purchasing massive amounts of tickets to locations all over the country and never expect to reach their destination.
The switchman explains that the railroads take the trains through impassable areas in their desire to serve their citizens, and as a result, the trains can take a long time. In fact, he says, people often die in the course of their trip, and as a result, funeral coaches are available. He also describes areas in which there is only one rail or none at all, resulting in wrecks, and tells of a town which came into being because of such a wreck. At the stranger's dismay at this news, the old man tries to bolster his courage, relaying a story about a group who found their train at an abyss without a bridge. According to the now-famous story, the group carried the train in pieces across the abyss and a river at its bottom, reassembled it on the other side, and received a discount for their...
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In response to these anecdotes, the stranger continues to insist that he must reach his destination by the next day. The switchman applauds his tenacity and suggests he stay at the inn until a train arrives and then take that one. He explains that most people take this course, and it is possible that thousands of people may compete with him to board the train, but it is worth a try. Apparently riots often result from passengers trying to board trains, and a school of railroad etiquette was established to cope with the situation. The switchman also urges the stranger to be vigilant about disboarding at the correct stop because in an effort to remedy overcrowding, the railroad has built imitation cities inhabited by dummies. People are often tricked into leaving the train and abandoned in such places. The trains are also equipped to project mirages in the windows, to trick passengers into believing that the train is moving or that they have reached their destinations. The switchman explains that in hopes of reaching his destination, he must focus on his goal and speak to no one because the railroads are full of spies who might undermine his efforts and in fact force him to spend the rest of his life in a prison car. According to the switchman, all of this effort on the part of the railroad is designed to convince all passengers to give in to their fates and cease caring about a destination.
At this the stranger asks the old man if he has traveled the rails much, and the old man replies that he is a retired switchman who comes to the station to remember the good old days. In fact he has never traveled but relies on the stories of others. He relays another story of passengers tricked into disboarding to admire the scenery and then abandoned, and then asks the stranger if he would like to spend the rest of his life in a remote, beautiful spot with a girl. He winks and smiles at the stranger and then jumps in alarm at the sound of a train whistle. The switchman runs at the train, gesturing wildly with his lantern, and calls back to the stranger, asking again the name of his destination. The stranger replies that it is X__ , a different destination from his previous one. This reply coincides with a name or identity change for him; previously called the stranger, he is now called the traveler. At the moment he submits to the ways of the railroad, the old man disappears into the morning, and the train noisily approaches the station.